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Hurry up and wait!
by Jill Smith
Part 3 of a continuing series
as published in our newsletter, Logbook, August 1999

Hurry up and wait. That's the motto on days when the weather is bad. Get to the airport at 8 A.M. and preflight my airplane-sometimes I preflight two airplanes since I maybe switching at some point during the day. I'm preparing for an 8:30 A.M. departure if it's light enough. Most of the strips aren't lit except for Cold Bay and Sand Point. During the winter, the first flight doesn't take off usually until 9:30 or 10:00 A.M., since that's when it gets light. I'm all ready and the weather is bad or goes bad, so I wait. I check weather with the Flight Service Station at Cold Bay, which operates 8-6 daily, or with the National Weather Service, which is also in Cold Bay. Does that tell you something about the weather in Cold Bay? I look outside and time the squalls or low cloud layers. How often are they coming? How big are they? How long are they lasting?

Finally, it is beautiful and there is enough room between squalls that are now moving off to the east to launch to the north-northeast to Nelson Lagoon. Supposedly, the weather is good there. I head out in a Cherokee Saratoga. The flight is uneventful but boy is it cold. About 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit and that is actually cold for the Alaska Peninsula area. The average low in Cold Bay is usually 27 degrees.

While on the ground in Nelson Lagoon, a pilot for a company that operates part time in the area came up to me and told me that he had talked to Flight Service over the RCO at Nelson Lagoon and was told to stay on the ground. He was headed for Cold Bay, also. A big squall was going through. The visibility was 1/2 mile, 800 feet overcast ceiling, snow and freezing fog. Well, that report made staying on the ground sound really good. Since it was so cold out, we loaded the airplane with the baggage and everyone then got in their respective vehicles and I sat in the plane. I waited a while and then called the FSS myself and was told it was still bad, but improving, and to takeoff immediately. I jumped out and told the other pilot what the briefer had said. He would be a few minutes behind me because he ended up having to change a tailwheel on his Cessna 185.

I loaded my passengers-all six of them, three adults, two children and a lap child (under two years old). We took off and the first half of the flight was mostly pretty good. Then came the low ceilings, freezing fog and snow. Down to 500 feet (Minimums are 500 feet and two miles visibility). Here we go… Keep going. About 25 miles out from Cold Bay I'm barely able to reach FSS and get this report-800 feet overcast, visibility less than ¼ mile. Time to start "holding." Being VFR instead of IFR, it's not as… restricted. When the weather is low going to and from Nelson Lagoon, we always follow the shoreline. I had been following it and now I started doing circles, always keeping my eye on the shoreline to maintain a horizon.

Meanwhile, on the other radio, the pilot in the Cessna 185 was asking me where I was as he was on his way. I was very thankful for GPS and Comm radios at that point, so he wouldn't hit me in the low visibilities.

I was keeping tabs on the weather at Cold Bay on Comm 1 and again got a report from the FSS Specialist. The visibility was now ½ mile. Oh, wow. At least it's improving. Keep circling. The wind is pushing me and the fog around a little, so I move in closer now. Hmm… was that a rough engine? Yes. Pull on the alternate air. The freezing fog is getting to my engine. New weather report-3/4 of a mile visibility. Come on, come on-keep improving. Is it hot in here or just me? I'm about 18 miles from Cold Bay when the briefer, without warning or preamble says, "Cherokee 12H, you are cleared into the Cold Bay Class E surface area at or below 2500 feet, report landing." Before the clearance is even completely out of his mouth my airplane is turning toward the Cold Bay airport. With the other pilot right behind me and also needing to get into Cold Bay, I tell the briefer I will maintain visual with him. The briefer asked him if he agreed to it. He said, "yes," and was also given a special VFR clearance. Agreeing to maintain visual with each other is the only way more than one aircraft can enter the airspace.

Now I am presented with another problem. For a short distance, I'm going to be in whiteout conditions. Not because I'm going in the clouds, but because I have to cross land (no shoreline to follow till I cross from the Bering Sea to the actual Cold Bay) and the white ground, all this with the clouds above and low visibility causes whiteout conditions. Time to go on the gauges 100%. Uh oh. The D.G. is not working. Thank goodness for the Garmin GPS 195 with the HSI feature. Quickly get to that page. Ahh… Six flight instruments again. Another call to flight service gives Cold Bay seven miles visibility! You couldn't prove it by me! I hadn't been flying two minutes between the time it went from one mile to seven miles. Amazing. Forge on. Remember, Jill, there is a 900-foot mountain and a 6800-foot mountain behind Cold Bay. If you fly too far like this… All of a sudden the clouds are gone. I've got a million miles visibility! Eehaa! I'm going to make it!


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